I-Team: Nevada solar plant creates worldwide buzz - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Nevada solar plant creates worldwide buzz

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LAS VEGAS -- The Crescent Dunes solar plant could be called the tower of power. It's the most advanced solar plant in the world and it's ready to open soon.

The billion dollar plant near Tonopah was the last project to receive a federal loan guarantee. That program has since been canceled.

The 600-foot tower rising from the desert floor just north of Tonopah looks somewhat ominous, and its critics might not be surprised if the fiery Eye of Sauron suddenly appeared at the top. To the chagrin of detractors, the billion dollar Crescent Dunes Solar Plant is on schedule to fulfill every promise made when it accepted a federal loan guarantee. Without that loan, the plant wouldn't exist.

"We are 92 to93 percent complete with construction and should finish the rest by May," said Kevin Smith, the CEO of SolarReserve.

He stops short of saying 'I told you so' to the skeptics. He prefers to let the project speak for itself.

During a recent I-Team visit, more than 1,000 workers were on the job welding, bolting and assembling. Their presence has been a major boost to businesses in Tonopah, and even though the construction jobs will move on, the 65 or so permanent positions are a big deal for Tonopah's hardscrabble boom and bust economy.

Smith says that if all goes well, the 110 megawatt plant could be producing clean, renewable electricity by the fall. More important -- in the big picture -- is that its success could mean more  plants, not only in Nevada, but around the world. Smith says the rest of the world is waiting to see what happens in the Nevada desert.

"From a concentrated solar power standpoint, Tonopah is the center of the universe," he said.

Delegations from 30 countries have been to Tonopah to tour the plant and the company is in talks with officials in Morocco, South Africa, Chile, even Saudi Arabia.

"The Saudi market is huge. I was there last week. They are looking to add 50 gigawatts of electricity from solar, which would mean hundreds of projects like this."

Smith says that when the world's greatest oil power starts transitioning to solar, it speaks volumes. The reason the Saudis and so many others are focused on this particular plant is the unique technology it will demonstrate.

A forest of nearly 10,000 solar collectors is arrayed around the tower, sprouting from the desert floor like metallic mushrooms. Every one of the heliostats is assembled here. First, a robot places the large mirrors into position. Then, teams of employees bolt them into place and within minutes the mirrors are whisked out into the solar forest and are hoisted up into position. Their reflectors focused on the dark solar collector at the top of the tower. Channel 8 is the first news crew to capture video of the dramatic and artsy images.

The combined reflections from the heliostats will produce temperatures around 1,000 degrees which is similar to other solar plants, but that's where the similarity ends.

"This is the first one of its kind in the world. It's an integrated utility grade plant. It's the difference," said Brian Painter, SolarReserve technical director.

It boils down to salt, huge cauldrons of molten salt. The heat from the heliostats will be transferred into the salt, which will act as a huge lava-like storage battery, meaning the plant can still produce electricity even when the sun isn't shining. A storage tent houses about 30,000 bags with each bag weighing about a ton. This isn't the kind of salt you'd sprinkle on your french fries.

"The molten salt is the core of our technology. At any given time, you will have 70 million pounds of salt going through the system," Painter said.

When Crescent Dunes is up and running, SolarReserve hopes to export the technology to other parts of Nevada, and the world. The company thinks the debate about the viability of solar is over.

"The U.S. grew 40 percent last year with solar. The market has embraced it and will continue to embrace it," Smith said.

The plant has already cut a deal with NV Energy for it's power. It will supply enough to power 75,000 homes during it's peak periods.

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